When my daughter was five years old she had a pet crab named Clyde. He was purple, two feet across, and invisible.
"Mom," she said to me one day, "You don't believe that Clyde is real."
"Of course Clyde is real!" I said.
She stuck out her lip at me. I guess she had heard somewhere that parents never believe in imaginary friends.
I tried not to laugh. "Clyde is a real imaginary crab!"
"NO!" my daughter hopped up and down. "Clyde is a real REAL crab!"
It wasn't hard for me to imagine Clyde scuttling around the house, barley avoiding my feet as I walked the baby or hauled laundry baskets. Every now and then I would tease my daughter, "I haven't seen Clyde around lately. Is he all right?"
"Mom, you can't SEE Clyde. He's invisible!"
He was real. As real as anything.
A few years later I overheard my boys arguing. They had wands made from tightly rolled-up paper in their hands. One shouted to the other, "Well, Harry Potter isn't REAL anyways!"
"Of course he's real," I said. "Harry Potter is a real fictional character, and he puts very real money into certain peoples' pockets."
This year at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers I learned that, biochemically, there's very little difference between reading about something and experiencing it. The reader enters a waking dream in which adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and other lovely chemicals are released into the bloodstream just as if things were really happening. The difference is, a reader can close the book and come up from the waking dream with limbs intact and life all around just as it was before. The consequences of reading a story are harder to see than the consequences of living an experience.
But the consequences are there. The consequences are there inside. And what's inside begins to affect what's outside.
I've read books that changed the way I looked at the world. Nothing afterward was ever quite the same. And in that way, fiction is very, very real.